Learn English! The Vicious Idiocy of David Cameron

I have to admit that when I hear the word ‘integration’  coming from politicians  nowadays, it makes me want to reach for my revolver.   By integration, I don’t mean the term that British Home Secretary Roy Jenkins famously defined back in 1966 when he said:

‘ Integration is perhaps a loose word. I do not regard it as meaning the loss, by immigrants, of their own characteristics and culture. I do not think we need in this country a “melting pot”, which will turn everybody out in a common mould, as one would a series of carbon copies of someone”s misplaced version of the stereotyped Englishness. I define integration, therefore, not as a flattening process of assimilation but as equal opportunity, accompanied by cultural diversity, in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance.”

Wise and sensible words, but they couldn’t be further removed from the arrogant and condescending demands emanating from our government and so many others, to the effect  that immigrants must integrate with ‘us’ or leave the country.

Such demands are often accompanied by accusations that certain groups of immigrants are deliberately refusing to integrate and that their refusal to do so is a sign of cultural hostility or incompatibility.  Take the issue of learning English.   Anyone who has ever lived in another country knows that it’s sensible and even essential to learn the language of the country you are living in. Without that ability, a whole range of everyday activities and interactions become difficult or even impossible, and you are never going to be able to fully engage with the society you are living in.

As a former language learner and a language teacher, both inside and outside the UK, I know that learning a language takes time, patience and – for most of us anyway – a certain amount of instruction that you will usually have to receive when you aren’t working.

It makes sense therefore, for an immigrant-receiving country to provide such instruction and facilitate the language learning process for the mutual benefit of new arrivals,  and the country they have come to live in.  But that kind of thinking is entirely alien to the purse-lipped buffoons that the British public has chosen – for reasons known only to itself – to place in government.

For  Lord Snooty and His Pals, it isn’t a question of helping immigrants to learn English; they want to make them learn it and punish and exclude them when they don’t.

His Lordship has been banging on for some time now that immigrants must learn English or leave – a demand that always carries the implicit suggestion that these nefarious intruders are willfully spurning the language that gave us Shakespeare and Tennyson and the locals who speak it, all of whom are just waiting with open arms to integrate them and join in choral recitations of Hamlet’s soliloquy or simply a good rousing version of Kumbaya.

Of course making these demands is far more useful politically than actually helping migrants to learn English.  Last year the government cut £45 million from ESOL  Plus Mandation (English for speakers of other languages), thereby denying some 16,000 adult learners across the country the opportunity to learn English.

But now this week, in a display of gimlet-eyed idiocy that is egregious even by his own standards,  His Lordship has suggested that immigrants will be tested on their English after two and a half years, and that those who haven’t attained the required level of fluency  ‘ …can”t guarantee they will be able to stay, because under our rules you have to be able to speak a basic level of English to come into the country as a husband or wife. We made that change already, and we are now going to toughen that up, so halfway through the five-year spousal settlement there will be another opportunity to make sure your English is improving. You can”t guarantee you can stay if you are not improving your language.’

These new demands appear to be aimed primarily at Muslim women.  Plucking statistics out of a hat with his usual deft sleight-of-hand,  Cameron says than  38,000 Muslim women can’t speak English and 190,000 have only limited skills in the language.   His Lordship thinks that this could be because ‘some of these people have come from quite patriarchal societies and perhaps the menfolk haven”t wanted them to speak English.’

So Lord Snooty – in full on white savior mode – has come up with the brilliant idea of threatening to deport women who don’t speak English in order to save them from their backward husbands!   Don’t say that isn’t neatly done.

But if you thought that was clever, that was only His Lordship’s first trick.  In addition to prying Muslim women out of their backwardness, he has also discovered that not learning English may constitute a terrorist threat.  Ever the deep thinker His Lordship recognizes that there is no ‘causal link’ between ‘radicalization and language skills.’

Nevertheless he has concluded that  ‘  If you”re not able to speak English, not able to integrate, you may find therefore you have challenges understanding what your identity is and therefore you could be more susceptible to the extremist message coming from Daesh.’

Now that, my friends, is joined-up thinking in action.   In Lord Snooty’s world, to prevent radicalization and promote integration and save women from patriarchal enslavement, you make them learn English and threaten them with removal if they don’t.  And all this is to be financed with a £20 million grant to fund ESOL classes for women, even though it’s still only half of the £45 million the government cut from ESOL last year, and a fraction of the £160 million cuts in ESOL funding  overall since 2008.

It’s all for a good cause though, because His Lordship insists that

‘We will never truly build One Nation unless we are more assertive about our liberal values, more clear about the expectations we place on those who come to live here and build our country together, and are more creative and generous in the work we do to break down barriers.’

Just to repeat: this concept of integration is nothing to do with what Roy Jenkins’s use of the term.  There is no ‘mutual tolerance’ here, let alone creativity and generosity.  There is only an aggressive policy of assimilation which stigmatises immigrants in general and certain groups of immigrants in particular, as ungrateful and dangerous interlopers, who in Jenkins’s phrase must be ‘flattened out’

And what Cameron has done, with a stunning combination of ineptitude and sheer viciousness,  is turn a perfectly sensible idea – that immigrants should be encouraged and helped to learn  English – into yet another piece of red meat to feed the ‘concerns’ of those who would really prefer that there weren’t any foreigners in the country at all.

Ofsted: Gove’s Trojan Horse

For some time now it has been clear that Ofsted functions as the political instrument of central government.   Until recently this instrumentalization was mostly manifest in general terms; for governments intent on scapegoating teachers for the many failings of British society, Ofsted’s inquisitorial inspection system constituted a useful blunt instrument for intimidating and bullying schools, subjecting the entire education system to factory-style production quotas and markers of achievement of the type that Stalin would have approved of.

Initially introduced by John Major as a means of empowering parents, Ofsted has become a tool of both Labour and Conservative governments, enforcing and imposing constantly shifting educational targets and criteria that too often appear designed either to gain political kudos for raising ‘standards’, on one hand, or for ensuring that schools fail and fall short in order to justify the further privatisation of schools and the dismantling of the state education system.

Under the Coalition, Ofsted has essentially acted as a battering ram for the government’s academy/free schools program.   In 2010 new inspection criteria introduced under Michael Wilshaw resulted in an exponential increase in the numbers of schools downgraded or placed into special measures, and a concomitant decrease in the numbers labelled outstanding.

This system has had an extraordinarily destructive impact, which I have seen here in my own town, where two fine schools were savaged by recent Ofsted inspections,   one of which was placed into special measures.       From the government’s point of view, all this has been extremely convenient, because the more schools fail, or are seen to fail, the more it can present academies and free schools as a solution.

This has been the essential project of Michael Gove, one of the most blinkered, ideological, egocentric and incompetent education secretaries in modern times.   Gove is a man who has spent much of his time peering at the world through a very narrow keyhole, who despises the state education system and anyone who disagrees with him – a category that includes a lot of people.

In Ofsted chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, a former academy head teacher, he appears to have found a more-than-willing accomplice.   Like Gove, Wilshaw is clearly an ambitious man who cannot be accused of a lack of self-regard, and he has generally done what the Education Secretary expects him to do.

This collusion   was blatant enough even before the Birmingham ‘Trojan horse’ scandal, but the events of the last week have comprehensively destroyed Ofsted’s claims to be impartial and free from political interference.     As a result of Gove’s wildly over-the-top response to a hoax letter concerning   a purported Islamist plot to take over Birmingham schools, Ofsted re-inspected 21 schools, six of which have been placed under special measures.

Two of the schools it downgraded had been previously found to be outstanding. These reassessments were not based on educational criteria, but on the supposed promotion of a conservative religious agenda in Muslim-majority schools – an agenda that Ofsted, like Gove himself, has mindlessly and dangerously conflated with ‘extremism’.   Not only has Ofsted avoided any attempt to define what exactly constitutes ‘extremism’, but it has admitted in its own report that it did not find any evidence of it.

What it did find was somewhat inconclusive evidence of some attempts to promote/impose a religious education into some of the schools inspected, that included a school trip to Mecca and Medina, a statement rejecting evolution, and an attempt by some school governors in one primary school to ban same-sex swimming classes.

There is certainly an argument to be had here about the role of religion in the state education system – particularly in its more reactionary manifestations, whether Islamic or Christian, and also about the undue influence that school governors may have on particular schools.

But this is not the discussion that Gove and Ofsted are interested in having.     Long before Gove assumed his gimlet-eyed grip on the education system that we have all come to know and love, he was a British neocon, who echoed the ‘moral clarity’ idiocies emanating from the likes of American war on terror ideologues like Richard Perle and William Bennett.

In his book Celsius 7/7, Gove warned of a ‘widespread reluctance to acknowledge the real scale and nature of the Islamist terror threat’   in Britain, which he attributed to ‘ the failure to scrutinise, monitor or check the actions, funding and operation of those committed to spreading the Islamist word in Britain’.

For Gove, and for those who think like him, the ‘Islamist word’ is a fairly broad category, which enables him to imagine a seamless conveyor belt that starts with segregated classrooms and swimming classes and ends up with suicide bombers.   Like Melanie Philipps or Bat Ye’or, Gove imagines ‘Islamism’ in essentially conspiratorial terms, and is certainly not the type to look skeptically at allegations of an Islamist ‘trojan horse’ – especially if uncovering such a conspiracy is likely to further his political ambitions.

To its eternal discredit, Ofsted and Wilshaw have done everything possible to help make Gove’s fantasies real.   Like so   many managerial bullies, Wilshaw likes other people to fail, not himself.   In his letter to Gove he is at pains to point out that culture of fear and intimidation has developed in some of the schools since their previous inspection.’ One of those schools is Park View academy, which Wilshaw personally visited in 2012 when Ofsted rated it ‘outstanding.’

Wilshaw was fulsome in his praises of the school declaring ‘ If a school like this does well, why shouldn’t any school do well?’   Now Park View has been placed in special measures, and one of its governors Tahrir Aram- who was also present during Wilshaw’s 2012 visit – has been singled out for promoting this ‘culture of fear and intimidation.’

Having exonerated himself from any involvement in this outcome, Wilshaw goes on to indict everyone else in accordance with His Master’s instructions.   Yet despite the excessive Islamism that Wilshaw attributes to certain governors and schools,   which has mysteriously sprouted up since he last visited them,     Ofsted has found no evidence of extremist behavior amongst any pupils or staff.

Knowing that this won’t be good enough for Gove however, Wilshaw nevertheless indicts Birmingham’s schools for having failed to protect students from ‘the risks’   of radicalisation and extremism.   In Oldknow primary, Wilshaw declares that ‘ pupils and staff are poorly equipped to understand, respond to or calculate risks associated with extreme or intolerant views.’

Birmingham City Council, on the other hand, is accused of failing support schools ‘in their efforts to keep pupils safe from the potential risks of radicalisation and extremism.’   What are these ‘risks’ or ‘potential risks’?     And what makes Ofsted qualified to assess them?   What in fact does Ofsted understand by ‘radicalisation and extremism?’

Ofsted doesn’t say and clearly has no interest in finding out.   Instead it merely parrots the empirically-dubious conceptualisation of Islamist ‘radicalization’ that seeks to explain political violence in terms of inherent cultural or religious practices.   It also assumes that the government’s ‘Prevent’ program is the antidote to such radicalization, without any attempt to assess whether these strategies are even effective.

Even the Gracelands nursery is accused of being ‘unaware of local authority or government guidelines on the prevention of extreme and radical behavior.’     Given that the pupils at Gracelands range from three to five years old, more rational observers might   conclude that preventing extreme and radical behavior was not a high priority.

But when the pupils are Muslims, it’s clearly a different matter, and Wilshaw, like Gove, appears to assume that without due vigilance these kids would probably be bowing down to their dark cult or strapping on toy explosives.   In the same way Wilshaw worries that the inspected schools ‘ do not ensure that a broad and balanced curriculum equips pupils to live and work in a multi-cultural, multi-faith and democratic Britain’ and that ‘children are not being encouraged to develop tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures.’

Is that a problem in these schools?   Maybe or maybe not, but I really doubt Ofsted’s ability to assess the matter dispassionately one way or another.   And in any case these criticisms have a very different weighting when applied to Muslim-majority schools.   My daughter, for example, when to a Church of England-aided primary.     During that time I don’t remember any attempts to ‘encourage’ the children   to develop ‘tolerant attitudes towards all faiths and all cultures’, though I do remember a fair amount of Christianity.

But ‘intolerance’ whether real or imagined, always has more sinister ramifications when Muslims are involved, at least according to Gove and Ofsted.   And now,   the antidote to their intolerance is a good dose of ‘British values’ in order to help Muslim children prepare to live in a multicultural society; the imposition of a new policing regime based entirely on Gove and Ofsted’s limited understanding of terrorism and terrorism-prevention; and yet another recasting of British Muslims as cultural aliens and the enemy within.

So Ofsted and Wilshaw must surely be congratulated for contributing to this outcome.     They may not have found a Trojan Horse, but no one can fault them for trying.   And the rest of us can only think ourselves lucky once again that the nation’s education system is in the hands of such wise, thoughtful, and enlightened men, who will always put the public interest before their own.


Three Cheers for Jess Green

Anybody who is or has been a teacher in the UK, or is living or married to one, will recognize the reality depicted in Jess Green’s searing and witty indictment of Michael Gove that is currently picking up thousands of hits on Youtube:

And anyone who cares about the future of the country’s education system should see it too.   Because Green’s mini  tour de force isn’t just a stinging indictment of one of the most repellent politicians in the Coalition’s gallery of ghouls: it’s also a brilliant and passionate corrective to the endless attacks on the teaching profession emanating from the government and its mouthpieces.

For decades now, teachers have become scapegoats for pretty much every failing in British society.     No other single profession has been so relentlessly attacked by the political class,   and no other profession has been subject to such relentless contempt from people who know very little about what teaching actually entails or what happens in a classroom.

Both Labour and Conservative politicians have approached the whole subject of education from the starting point that a) they know more about teaching than teachers themselves b) without their interventions and reforms the education system would collapse c) teachers are not to be trusted d) any teachers who complain about their endless tinkering with the education system are merely defending their own mediocrity,   ‘making excuses for failure’, or pushing some ideological agenda etc.

The belief that teachers are inherently untrustworthy, lazy and unprofessional has resulted in the imposition of the primitive and bullying micro-managed inspection regime of Ofsted – a hateful organization which has effectively subjected the entire profession to a culture of bullying and fear in an attempt to ‘drive up standards.’

Ofsted’s management style is embodied by its chief inspector Michael Wilshaw, an arrogant, smug and self-regarding Tory apparatchik, who, like Gove himself, interprets any criticism from teachers as a sign that he is doing everything right.   In 2011, shortly before Wilshaw became chief inspector he delivered a valedictory speech from the Mossbourne Community Academy where he had been headteacher, in which he quoted from a letter written to him by an ‘underperforming teacher’, describing   him as   a ‘crude and inconsiderate’ man, with ‘the manners of a guttersnipe’,   who had been a ‘disaster’ for the school”s once happy teachers.

For Wilshaw, such accusations were a source of pride. ‘The lesson of that,’ he crowed, ‘is that if anyone says to you that “staff morale is at an all-time low” you will know you are doing something right.’

What a jerk.     Wilshaw is a strong supporter of performance-related pay, who has said that teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ at 3 pm shouldn’t be promoted or paid well.   Of course Wilshaw knows perfectly well that most teachers who are ‘out of the gate’ don’t stop working just because they aren’t in school, but he would rather reinforce the public stereotype of whinging teachers swinging the lead

In January this year Wilshaw insisted ‘ there is a difference between a professional with a legitimate criticism and a serial complainer with another moan. One tends to be listened to; the other does not,’ in a speech describing the fact that ‘nearly 40 percent’ of new teachers leave the profession within five years as a ‘scandal.’     Whose fault is that?   Naturally,   according to Wilshaw, its was the quality of teacher training, not the institution that he heads – a problem that he promised to resolve by ensuring that Ofsted would ‘get tougher’ on training providers.

The evidence emanating again and again from the teaching profession is that Ofsted has got tough enough.     At its 2012 conference, even   the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) voted by a massive majority in favour of the motion:

‘Successful careers are damaged or destroyed on a daily basis as more schools are put into categories. Fear reigns and confidence wanes as Ofsted waves its stick. We must stand up to the bully-boy tactics of Michael Wilshaw. We deplore his negative rhetoric which is demoralising our members and is creating a climate of fear in schools.’

I have seen the destructive impact of these ‘bully-boy tactics’ twice in the last few years in my local town.     In 2011,   the local secondary school that my daughter attends was threatened with ‘special measures’ on the basis of new data criteria introduced by Ofsted’s chief inspector Ofsted in 2011.   That inspection was preceded by the kind of fear and dread that would have made Kierkegaard seem chilled-out by comparison, and its report describing the school as ‘inadequate’ was a massive kick in the teeth for the staff, children and parents.

That same academic year the school   achieved   a 99.6% A level pass rate 60% of results at grade B or above, in addition to 70% of students earning 5 A*-C grades at GCSE.   In September 2012 the school was upgraded in a follow-up inspection to ‘good’ – a category that is as meaningless and arbitrary as Ofsted’s earlier verdict.

Then last year my daughter’s former primary school was placed in ‘special measures’, and this year its headteacher – the same one who was there when my daughter attended the school – was suspended after a group of parents wrote to Ofsted calling for her to be sacked.

During this time I read the utterly ignorant description of both schools as ‘failing’ schools in the local press – and in the latter case on the BBC.

I did not always see eye-to-eye with that headteacher when our daughter was in the school, but it is shocking and lamentable than a woman who has dedicated her whole life to children and her local community should have been forced to end her career in this way.

That schools should be inspected and improved is beyond dispute, but the idea that the education of the nation’s children depends on the imposition of this culture of fear, intimidation and public humiliation is a travesty.     Most teachers accomplish more in a single day than your average silk-tied politician achieves in an entire lifetime.

Instead of blame, bullying and intimidation, they deserve support and help, so that they can do their job better.

Richard Levin’s Awfully Big Corporate Adventure

One of the small mysteries that has always intrigued me about Tony Blair’s dizzying transformation into a global moneymaking machine, was his teaching role at Yale University.   In September 2008 Blair taught his first class at Yale as part of a three-year collaboration between the Yale School of Divinity and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation calling itself the   ‘Faith and Globalization Initiative’.

According to its PR blurb, Blair would participate in a series of seminars in which ‘ The potential of religious faith to bring the world”s people together rather than drive them apart will be explored through the seminar and made available to a world audience through a multi-media website.’  

The Great Man himself summed up the course with a characteristically inane observation of his own, to the effect that ‘ Global interdependence is a reality and faith is inextricably linked to that interdependence. As we have seen, faith can be a source of division and destruction, but faith can also be a source of reconciliation, not conflict.’

Sure it can Tony, and you would know right?   All this surprised me for various reasons.   Firstly,   it was curious and in fact astonishing to learn that one of the world’s great universities had chosen chosen a man whose dim support of the Bush administration’s militaristic adventures and fraudulent wars had reaped such a terrible a harvest of destruction, violence, chaos and division across the Middle East, to lecture its students on on how to bring people together.

It was also striking that a politician who had never previously mentioned ‘faith’ in his political career – and who had explicitly disavowed any religious component to his politics while in office – was now presenting himself as some kind of authority on the interaction between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Last but not least, I was puzzled by the fact that such a prestigious academic institution would seek the expertise of a politician who,   whatever his political skills, was a long way short of a deep thinker.   I mean,   we are talking about a man who once said that his favourite book was Ivanhoe, and who was once criticized by three of the UK’s foremost academic experts on Iraq and the Middle East for his stunning ignorance of the region’s politics and his complete lack of intellectual curiosity about them.

Call me old-fashioned, but I thought that universities were supposed to be places dedicated to the pursuit of intellectual debate and inquiry, that valued genuine knowledge and expertise as part of their role as ‘centres of critique’, as Terry Eagleton puts it.   Yet here was Yale creating an entire divinity course around the political equivalent of Peter Sellers’ character Chance the Gardener from Being There.

I was reminded of this episode recently by the news that Richard C. Levin, who was then president of Yale, has just accepted a new job as CEO of the Silicon Valley online education company Coursera.   This is a company that specializes in ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs), in which students can access courses online for free.

Coursera has currently enrolled some 2 million students for its courses across the world, and it makes money when students pay for courses which it calls ‘Signature Track’ courses’ for as little as $50 to $100 dollars.

The company has made major inroads into the online education market, forging partnerships with Harvard and other Ivy League universities.     Coursera has also been criticized for a number of reasons.   Some have cited its high drop-out rates,   the high incidence of plagiarism, the poor quality of its grading systems, its willingness to submit its courses to censorship.

Others have questioned the academic credibility of its courses and warned of the potentially destructive long-term impact on university education through the expansion of ‘massified’ learning processes, in which ‘classes’ may be attended by as many as 100,000 students, with no real contact with their teachers.

None of this has prevented the former Yale president from accepting the new job for an unspecified salary, after stepping down last year.     From Coursera’s point of view, Levin will help the company develop its partnerships with American universities and reinforce its academic credibility.   But these services won’t have come cheap.   In his 20 years as Yale president, Levin was extremely successful in attracting revenue and increasing the size of Yale’s endowment, and he was spectacularly well-rewarded for it.

In 2011 Levin was listed by the Chronicle of Higher Education as one of the highest paid men in university education, with a salary of $1.65 million, in addition to the income he received as a director of American Express and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Yet in 2009/10, faced with a $150 million budget gap, Levin introduced a range of measures that included a freeze on salaries for deans and administrators, cuts in research grants, and the laying off of hundreds of clerical and technical workers.

In effect Levin embodies the transformation of American universities into what Noam Chomsky has called the ‘corporate business model, ‘ in which the huge increase in high-salaried senior managers and administrators has been accompanied by the spread of ‘precarity’ throughout the teaching and non-academic staff.

From 1985 to 2005, according to the Times Higher Education Supplement ‘ student enrolment in the US rose by 56 per cent, faculty numbers increased by 50 per cent, degree-granting institutions expanded by 50 per cent, degrees granted grew by 47 per cent, administrators rocketed by 85 per cent and their attendant staff by a whopping 240 per cent.’

This transformation was the subject of Benjamin Ginsberg’s 2011 book The Fall of the Faculty: the Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters.     A professor of political science at John Hopkins University, Ginsberg condemned the ‘administrative blight’ inflicted by an army of ‘deans’ and ‘deanlets’ that he argued had marginalized the faculty itself.

A similar process has been underway for some time in the UK, where chancellors and vice-chancellors have been hoovering up city-level pay cheques while academic and non-academic staff have seen their pay and working conditions steadily deteriorate over the last decade.

So it isn’t surprising that the former president who helped ‘corporatize’ Yale is now helping a private corporation give itself the credibility of a university that it has not earned.     And nor is it surprising that a university that was transformed under Levin’s leadership into a highly-efficient revenue-attracting machine should have seen Tony Blair as a viable addition to the faculty.

After all, it was Levin,     in his capacity as president,   who once described the appointment of this hollow cipher as ‘ a tremendous opportunity for our students and our community. As the world continues to become increasingly inter-dependent, it is essential that we explore how religious values can be channelled toward reconciliation rather than polarisation.’

No doubt.   But Blair was not the man to undertake such an enterprise.   Yale should have recognized this, yet chose to pay him $200,000, even as it was freezing salaries for its own staff.   Levin’s latest job is perhaps a clue as to why this happened, and further evidence that too many powerful people running universities are more concerned with enriching themselves than the pursuit of knowledge or teaching people to think.

In that sense at least, the relationship between the former Yale president and the British Prime Minister does show some real symmetry.